So, you’re finally ready to shed some of those pandemic pounds? Over 40 percent of American adults reported gaining weight during the pandemic, with an average gain of 29 pounds, according to a survey released last March by the American Psychological Association. But although it may not have seemed to take a lot of effort to put on that weight, it will require hard work and determination to get it off.
“Everyone wants quick weight loss, but that never works,” says James Hill, nutrition sciences department chair at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. As he explains, even if you do quickly shed the weight, if you don’t have a reasonable plan, you’ll just regain it.
Of course, every great plan needs a good start. Here are five tips to follow during your first week of any longer-term weight loss. Try these and you’ll not only lose weight but also create healthy habits that will serve you well going forward.
Tip No. 1: Just drop the chips (and other processed foods).
If you simply stop eating food that comes out of a package or box, you might be able to lose about a pound a week, according to a National Institutes of Health study published in 2019 in the journal Cell Metabolism. When researchers had 20 healthy adults spend two weeks eating highly processed foods, such as a bagel with cream cheese and turkey bacon, they found that they consumed, on average, about 500 more calories a day than those who focused on minimally processed fare (think oatmeal topped with bananas and walnuts). “Processed foods tend to be lower in fiber and higher in sugar and fat, so there’s nothing to make you feel full, and you end up eating more of it,” explains Caroline Apovian, M.D., codirector of the Center for Weight Management and Wellness at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. The study found, for example, that people on the unprocessed diet had lower levels of hunger hormones like insulin and ghrelin.
Tip No. 2: Eat with the sun.
Intermittent fasting is all the rage right now, but it can be tough to stick to, and research shows mixed results. A smarter, more doable approach is to try to eat the bulk of your calories when it’s light out, Apovian advises. “Our body’s circadian rhythms are still hardwired to how we ate centuries ago, when we consumed most of our food during the day so we’d have energy for our daily activities,” she explains. “As a result, our metabolism works better during light hours.” Research backs this up: One 2017 study, done at the University of Pennsylvania, found that people who ate their calories later in the day — from noon to 11 p.m. — gained weight and had higher blood glucose and cholesterol levels than those who ate between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. The earlier schedule has another advantage: “When you’re only eating between an eight- and 10-hour window, you can’t get in 3,500 calories,” Apovian points out.
If you still find this approach too restrictive, or if it’s not possible for you to stop eating by 6 or 7 p.m., Apovian recommends that you keep your last meal of the day light and try to get most of your calories from breakfast or lunch. It’s particularly important not to skip breakfast. Indeed, nearly 80 percent of people who have successfully lost and kept off at least 30 pounds report eating this meal every day, according to the National Weight Control Registry. “It’s so important to eat within 30 minutes of getting up, because if you go too long without food, you’ll get so hungry that you overeat,” Hill explains.
Tip No. 3: Include protein at every meal.
If you are trying to lose weight, protein is key. “When you lose weight, your resting energy expenditure goes down, and the only way to counter that is to build up muscle mass to boost up your metabolism,” Apovian says. She recommends 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (so about 95 grams, or a little more than 3 ounces for a 140-pound person). The easiest way to meet this goal, she says, is to include 3 to 4 ounces of protein at every meal. You’ll also build more muscle if you do it this way: A 2017 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that consuming an equal amount of protein at all three meals is linked to more muscle strength in people age 67 and older. Keep in mind that 1/4 cup of cooked beans, an egg, a tablespoon of peanut butter or a half ounce of nuts or seeds is roughly equivalent to an ounce of cooked meat, poultry or fish protein.
Tip No. 4: Don’t be draconian.
“The challenge of both short-term and long-term weight management is not just what you eat but how you think about what you eat,” says Gary Foster, adjunct professor of psychology in psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and chief science officer at WW. If you eat ice cream most days of the week after dinner, for example, don’t get rid of it cold turkey. Instead, include it as an after-dinner snack a couple of days a week. “The shorter the distance between from where you are now to where you want to go, the more likely it is you’ll be successful,” Foster explains.
Case in point: When researchers at the University of Colorado instructed people to shave only 100 calories a day from their diet, most ended up getting rid of 300. “When you make a goal, and it’s small and doable, it builds your confidence and ability to take that next step,” Foster says. He also recommends that you steer clear of abstract, broad goals, like vowing to keep all junk food out of your house. “The more specific you can be, the better — for example, if you get rid of all the candy and chocolate bars in your house, substitute air-popped popcorn for them instead,” he says. “This way, you have a game plan.”
Tip No. 5: Practice self-compassion.
“When people start a weight-loss journey, they often take a punitive view,” says Foster, who notes that setting unrealistic goals, and getting angry at yourself for any setbacks, won’t help you long term as much as seeing weight loss as a way to take care of yourself. When inevitable setbacks occur, he says, talk to yourself as you would to a friend, with encouragement , not harsh judgments. If slip-ups happen — even in your first week of any so-called diet — stay calm. Hop back onto the wagon as soon as you can, and don’t punish yourself. “If you overindulge one afternoon, don’t skip dinner to compensate,” Foster stresses. “Eat a light, healthy dinner, and pick up again right where you left off.” When you do this and view your weight-loss program as a way to nurture yourself, you set yourself up for healthy habits you can keep for life.